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EXCLUSIVE: Interview with the Man Behind the Southern Baptist Climate Initiative

Many of you caught the recent news of a growing number of Southern Baptist leaders signing onto a global warming declaration. They say their church’s official stance is “too timid” and call for more action on climate change. They write:

We realize that simply affirming our God-given responsibility to care for the earth will likely produce no tangible or effective results. Therefore, we pledge to find ways to curb ecological degradation through promoting biblical stewardship habits and increasing awareness in our homes, businesses where we find influence, relationships with others and in our local churches. Many of our churches do not actively preach, promote or practice biblical creation care. We urge churches to begin doing so.

This statement was pioneered by Jonathan Merritt, a graduate of Liberty University. He is currently a seminarian at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, in North Carolina. Over the weekend I wrote to Jonathan Merritt through my work with Interfaith Power and Light, asking for an interview and he agreed to share why he cares.

The Interview:

Alexander Carpenter: You’ve mentioned an epiphany “that broke you” and changed your perspective on the environment. What triggered it?

Jonathan Merritt: I was in a theology class at Southeastern learning about the general revelation of God. My professor likened destroying creation to tearing a page out of the bible. Obviously, these two forms are not equally important, but they are equally revelation.

AC: What process did you go through in deciding to translate your personal

conviction into a public, furthermore a community, statement of belief?

JM: I first began to examine my life, but I felt an inner nudge to do more. Then I sort of tore a page out of the SBC playbook. As Southern Baptists, we have learned that we can accomplish more when we cooperate together rather than blaze a trail individually.

AC: What do you have to say to other seminarians (and pastors and laypeople) who love their denominations, but also wish that their leadership would speak more prophetically to contemporary issues?

JM: This is not a call for leadership to address the issue of creation care as much as a call for “fellow Southern Baptists” and Christians everywhere. Real results will not come through resolutions; they will come through reexamination on the part of real people in real communities.

AC: This week I heard an environmental economist speak glowingly about the Southern Baptist Initiative. It seemed like this was a new sense of comity toward religion for him and others in the room. On the other hand, I also have read some reports wishing that the statement went further. For instance, calling for policy on carbon reductions. What hope do you hold for collaboration among the faith community and traditional environmental groups in working to stop global warming?

JM: This is not a policy document, and the average Southern Baptist is not a policy maker. Therefore, it wouldn’t be wise to make recommendations for solutions to environmental issues when we have been largely absent from those conversations.

AC: What are your favorite Bible verses on creation care?

JM: I really love Psalm 19 because it is a poetic description of general revelation, but I would have to say Romans 1. As a Southern Baptist, my number one issue is the Gospel. Romans 1 shows how environmental issues can relate to the spreading of the Gospel. I have received emails from IMB [International Mission Board] missionaries this week who tell me that creation is their starting point when sharing the Gospel. When we champion creation care causes, we only extend our platform by which we can preach the Gospel.

AC: Jesus calls his followers to care for the least in our world. How do you

think that conservation can help us follow His example of unconditional

compassion for humanity?

JM: There is an undeniable link between the Christ’s admonitions to love our neighbors, watch over the poor and care for “the least of these” and environmental crises. That is a difficult link for some Americans to see because we have the affluence to deal with the consequences of environmental degradation. Our actions often affect those in the poorest regions of the world.

AC: After you graduate, how do you plan to translate your environmental

awareness into practices for your ministry?

JM: I haven’t really thought that far ahead. I can tell you that at my Dad’s church, we have already begun to think about these things. For example, we are doing renovations in our church that utilize things like waterless toilets and CFLs [Compact Florescent Lights].

Thank you.

Update: Today, Dallas Morning News columnist William McKenzie writes that, “Jonathan Merritt nailed his equivalent of “95 Theses” to the door of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

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